A bit of context for the work on material networks I’m exploring with public archaeology… Last year I spent a weekend looking at the North West Cambridge development as part of a project called Prospection run by Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope as part of its art programme. The project brought together a group of people from different background to investigate two site huts, those of Cambridge Archaeological Unit and, on the other side of the site, Skanska. Here are my notes from that weekend:
Asbestos sheeting removed from site by Windsor Waste Management, Childreth, Essex
General waste removed by Biffa
All earth moved stays on site. Trees being reused in playground, smaller stuff chipped, medium wood given free as firewood.
Roads using recycled Type 1 aggregate from disused railways – processed by Frimstone, Milton Keynes
Tarmac comes from local batching plants
Concrete pile on site will be processed on site, the metal contained in it processed off site
Bricks already removed by Mick George, timbers removed from the farm site, jointed oak beams used by apprentices
Geotech sampling managed by Scott Wilson Eng., processed by Brownfield Solutions Ltd.
Specialist piling workers on site from around the country
My work here was a little less detailed as it will really depend on the published results of the archaeological work on site, but that work will show that things were made on the site and taken elsewhere and that things from elsewhere were brought into the site. There will be real, material connections between this site and others that were obvious to its historic inhabitants and others that are only revealed by the archaeological treatment of their remains. This links the site to the Skanska side clearly, where there is an established green narrative – earth stays on site, reuse of materials, local sourcing – that is backed up in part, proven to be wrong by some examples, and ignorant of some items that nobody seems to know either the provenance or destination of.
The first thing that this brief investigation shows (rather obviously) is that there are a lot of things going out of and coming into the site, creating not just material connections with other places (and times?), but entering and leaving other analytic contexts too e.g. soil leaves the site to become an archaeological sample or a tree becomes a component of a playground.
Secondly, that investigation of these material networks can reveal ‘new information’ about the site. This is clear in the archaeological analysis of where material came into the site from in the past but also reveals meaningful connections between otherwise disparate contexts at the level of the individual in the present day. In some cases these connections are revealed only by the act of investigation and contradict or complicate existing site narratives.
Thirdly, these connections and material networks have the potential to exist meaningfully at multiple scales, but what is meaningful and important will be revealed over time. So, the micro-level movement of soil and plant cells around the country on people’s boots (the workforce disperses nationally on Friday afternoon) establishes a real, physical connection between places. It may prove to be unimportant. Biffa taking away general waste may happen entirely unquestioned, but the site’s connection to particular national and international waste disposal strategies may prove to be its longest lasting legacy.
Finally, although this is in a way contemporary archaeology, it should not be thought of as different to traditional archaeological methods and interests, merely an extension of them, seeing a different potential in overlooked or even the same material. It is, and will hopefully remain, an archaeology of the site through time, not an archaeology of archaeologists or of Skanska. Ongoing work on the site should remain critical and questioning, with an aim of developing a meaningful understanding of the site in context (whatever that is revealed to be) and not merely document for documentation’s sake. For CAU, an objective methodology records everything found, but choices are made on what to progress to scientific analysis, which connections to follow up, what story to tell. A total analysis of the site is impossible.